WASHINGTON - Speaking contemporaneously of futile efforts being made to prevent World War II, Winston Churchill said, "When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure."

So it has been in modern America with immigration.

In 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan enacted a broad amnesty to be followed by a massive border strengthening. The problem: It provided amnesty without first securing the border. We can't go back to 1986, but we can learn from it. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to learn this lesson.

President Obama wants to grant amnesty, including a path to citizenship, without first making the border secure.

He's refused to enforce immigration laws on the books now. His administration has been running advertisements in Mexico about food-stamp availability here, and Obama's allies in the Senate blocked a Republican move to end these ads during the sequester.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has told Congress that the "border has never been more secure."

But just a few years earlier, in 2005, while George W. Bush was president and she was governor of Arizona, Napolitano declared that a "state of emergency" existed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Her politics appears to have informed her opinions.

Supporters of "secure the border first" should be wary of politicians who believe increasing that the Hispanic electorate will help their political party.

James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation warned in 2010, "for several years, Republicans have chanted a 'secure the border first' mantra. It allowed them to look tough on the illegal-immigration issue while dodging the issue of ëcomprehensive' reform. It's a bad strategy. It suggests that, if the Obama administration overcomes the 'border first' problem, it will be clear sailing for a push for amnesty."

Carafano identified the loophole the Obama administration now plans to exploit.

The administration supports - and the so-called "Gang of 8" immigration legislation includes - giving the executive branch the power to "certify" that the border is secure. Once that certification is in place, green cards can be distributed to those who came here illegally, and the "path to citizenship" for them can begin.

Under the "Gang of 8" legislation, the government official who gets to decide if our border is secure is Napolitano. If we don't want a repeat of our 1986 mistake, we can't allow passage of immigration legislation that lets the executive branch determine when the border has been secured.

If legislation is to include an amnesty, it should never be authorized before the border has genuinely been secured - for real. Or we'll just be back where we started, with many millions more in the U.S. illegally, wondering what to do.

Learn lesson of '86: Secure border first

Amy Ridenour is chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative/free-market think-tank.